JJ Peterka went through this challenge last year in Rochester. Now at age 20, the Buffalo Sabres have to decide if the expected ups and downs of a young player can be tolerated at the NHL level or require more work in the minors.
The most intriguing question left about the Sabres' roster is whether the club will break training camp with Peterka on the team. Or will the club decide he needs more work in the AHL, where he struggled in the pre-Christmas portion of last year's schedule but thrived in the second half of the season and the playoffs?
Tuesday's exhibition victory over Carolina showed the wondrous side and the warts of Peterka's game.
He used some terrific back pressure to get a steal from a Carolina player in the Buffalo zone in the first period and had a good chance alone on the net that was stopped by Hurricanes goalie Pyotr Kochetkov. He also scored an empty-net goal to clinch Buffalo's 4-2 win, but that came after his careless pass up the middle turned into a direct turnover for Carolina's second goal in a 19-second span earlier in the period.
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Following Tuesday's game, coach Don Granato referenced a "real soft" play that led to that goal. But after practice Wednesday, Granato seemed to put the brakes on any talk of the Sabres sending Peterka down.
The Sabres are still pondering whether to carry 13 or 14 forwards and Peterka doesn't seem to be sitting on the roster bubble. It appears that veterans Anders Bjork and Riley Sheahan are in that predicament.
"We just hope that a player in JJ's position can acclimate fast," Granato said. "He is talented, he does work. He takes critique very well. If he was missing any of those areas, I would be more nervous about having him play for us in the NHL.
"But he doesn't mind when I bring things to his attention. And he doesn't mind when I push him. And if I thought those were a concern, he probably would have to go learn more at the previous level. But I think he's in a situation where he can learn here fairly fast."
Peterka was the Amerks' leading scorer last year in both the regular season (28-40-68) and playoffs (7-5-12). But he's had several hiccups in this training camp that have not been seen from fellow 2020 draft pick and 2022 Rochester graduate Jack Quinn, who is honing in on a second-line role to start the season.
Peterka's play is the classic enigma for young players. The Sabres are going to have to deal with it.
"If you enter a new league, there's like always different spots where you can score and different things for you to know how you play," Peterka said. "It's for me, right now, to figure that out, how to do it in this league."
"They come in and they're so accustomed to getting away with moments of carelessness, they can catch the guy that they just lost the puck to and take it back," Granato said. "You either can overcome and outscore your mistakes, or you can just catch back up to the guy and cover up your mistakes right away. You can't at this level."
Granato said earlier this week it was probably natural for Peterka to press during preseason games to try to make a bigger impression. Peterka agreed that's probably the case.
"Of course, I would love to score a little bit more," he said. "But for me, it's just trying to find my game and get the rhythm back."
Optimism on Okposo
Granato had no update on winger Kyle Okposo, who left Tuesday's game with an upper-body injury the Sabres were quick to confirm was not a head/neck issue. That's obviously an important distinction to make given Okposo's concussion history since arriving in Buffalo in 2016. The coach did say Okposo has a good chance to be ready for the Oct. 13 season opener vs. Ottawa.
"It's going to take a few days for him," Granato said. "The issue he's dealing with will resolve and we'll probably see him on the ice in a couple of days."
Defenseman Casey Fitzgerald also returned to practice and goalie Craig Anderson was on a rest day.
Malone off to Rochester
Center Sean Malone cleared waivers Wednesday, allowing the Sabres to assign him to Rochester. The Sabres are at 29 players and need to be at their final list of 23 by Monday afternoon.